Top Putin critic avoids prison on appeal

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday escaped being sent to a penal colony on controversial charges he claims were ordered by the Kremlin after a court converted his five-year sentence into a suspended term.

President Vladimir Putin's most vehement critic walked free from court after the appeal verdict, although the embezzlement conviction that disqualifies him from politics remains in place.

The three judges hearing the appeal at the regional court in the northern Kirov region said they would "change the sentence for Alexei Navalny into a suspended term."

The decision came after Navalny made a surprisingly robust showing in the Moscow mayor election in September, coming second behind the Putin loyalist mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

Analysts said it could have been prompted by fears of his capacity to mobilise street protests that could have shaken the Kremlin if he had been sent to jail.

Several thousand Navalny supporters took to the streets of Moscow after his five-year sentence was announced in July.

"It is all absolutely obvious that all the decisions, first on the real sentence and the change now to suspended, are taken definitely not here but personally by Vladimir Putin," Navalny said after the ruling.

"I have not the faintest idea what is going on in his head, why he changes his decision," he added, to applause from his supporters.

Now that his conviction has been confirmed, Navalny is barred from standing for office in the foreseeable future. But he defiantly vowed to carry on the battle against Putin and his allies.

"It is absolutely clear they will not manage to push out me and my colleagues from this political fight. We will continue."

Navalny, who also faces several other criminal probes, said he would appeal the conviction. "Naturally, we will appeal," he told reporters in the courtroom before hugging his wife.

Writing later on his blog, Navalny said it would be strange to call Wednesday's decision a victory. "I am not going to be able to run for office," he said.

'He has many backers'

Navalny's co-accused Pyotr Ofitserov, who was previously sentenced to four years in a penal colony, also received a suspended sentence.

Wednesday's hearing was uncharacteristically swift, with Navalny saying he saw no sense in participating in debates. The judge said the reasoning for the decision would be presented on Thursday.

A member of the Kremlin's rights council said the suspended sentence might qualify Navalny for an amnesty the Kremlin is considering to mark the 20th anniversary of the Constitution in December.

"I hope he will qualify for the amnesty," Mara Polyakova told AFP. "A reversal to a suspended sentence matters in this case."

Wearing his trademark uniform of tie-less shirt with sleeves rolled up, Navalny sat on the defendants' bench typing into an Apple laptop with a "Putin - thief" sticker on the back.

The charismatic 37-year-old lawyer Navalny won 27 percent in Moscow mayoral polls with his populist campaign playing on anti-migrant moods and weariness with widespread corruption.

Navalny charged that the Moscow authorities had skewed the vote in favour of Sobyanin to avoid a humiliating second round run-off.

In July, Kirov's Lenin district court found Navalny and Ofitserov guilty of embezzlement over a 2009 timber deal and they were immediately arrested.

But in a surprise decision, Kirov's regional court freed them the next day, arguing they should remain free pending their appeal. The unprecedented move allowed Navalny to run for Moscow mayor and he attended the appeal as a free man.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, said the court reversed the sentence after Navalny's success at the ballot box due to fears his jailing could lead to street protests.

"He has many backers, they would have come out in his support, therefore the term has been changed to suspended," she told AFP.

Navalny rose to political stardom at mass protests in the winter of 2011/2012 against Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term.

Independent pollsters Levada this month found that 51 percent of Russians had heard of Navalny, taking him far beyond his initial audience of Moscow's Internet-savvy middle classes.